A Guide to Crabbing and Clamming in New Jersey

Crabbing and clamming can be enjoyed in pretty much any town with access to salt water.

blue crab
The blue crab is the prized catch in New Jersey's waters. Photo: Shutterstock/Rocharibeiro

Anyone who has spent time on any of our shores knows how important fishing is to the tapestry of coastal life. But when you start thinking about braided test, micro baits, gear ratios and thermoclines, things can get complicated. The beauty of both clamming and crabbing in New Jersey is that it’s just so simple.

As a fantastic recreational option from May through September that can be enjoyed in pretty much any town with access to salt water, crabbing and clamming today use basically the same techniques that go back to the native Lenape. Whether you approach it as foraging or fishing, crabbing and clamming are a good time that just may produce a great dinner.

Crabbing in New Jersey 

The prized crustacean here is the blue crab, aka Callinectes sapidus, a Latin-term meaning “beautiful swimmer.” Indeed it is. Though the top shell is dark, the claws and fins are brilliant reds, oranges and blues. Blue crabs are found in most saltwater and brackish estuaries from the Raritan to coastal bays, and even up the Delaware.

There are several ways to crab and two kinds of traps. The first is a crab pot: You put bait in the trap, drop it in the water tied to a buoy or dock, leave it for up to 72 hours, and then check to see if you got lucky.
Using a drop line or using a collapsible crab trap is a bit more exciting. Either can be done from a dock or pier, but you improve your chances of catching crabs from a boat. There are dozens of marinas in New Jersey that rent boats specifically for these adventures, selling the bait and the gear at launch. Bait is generally frozen bunker—a stinky, oily baitfish that can be cut up into halves or thirds. And, while technology for fishing advances each year, crabbing apparatus has remained the same for generations.

“Our part of the Navesink River is crab heaven,” says Steve Remaley, owner of Red Bank Marina, which has some 33 skiffs and pontoon boats to rent out for crabbing.

“The big boats can’t get back here to churn up the water. The crabs seem to love it, and the last few years have been really good. People rent a boat for a half day and come back with a half or even a full bushel basket,” he says.

Collapsing traps get baited and dropped to the bottom, where the weighted sides collapse open. When pulled up, they fold closed and bring the catch to the surface.

Perhaps the most fun option is drop lining, most effectively done from a boat or low dock. A dropline costs about $3; a simple wooden-handle scoop net and crab tongs can be bought for less than $20 each. The bait gets impaled on a weighted clip and dropped to the bottom at the end of a string, which is tied to the boat or dock. There’s a bit more skill and excitement to this, as you have to feel whether there is a crab on the line and retrieve it slowly, then quickly scoop the crab with the net. Be ready—they’re fast!

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By law, hard shell crabs must be 4.5 inches, tip to tip, to keep. Smaller ones get thrown back. You will only be catching hard-shell crabs, as opposed to soft shells, which are are crabs in the process of shedding their shells. They are sold in fish markets and restaurants as a delicacy. Shedding clams don’t feed, and therefore won’t go after your bait, so they are very rarely caught by recreational crabbers.

Handling the crabs without getting bitten is tricky. Crabs should be grabbed at the base of the swimming fin, where the pincher can’t reach. But a bite is almost part of the ritual—and usually makes for a great story when you’re enjoying the catch that evening. Crab tongs are recommended for the less adventurous.

Crabs are kept alive, usually in a bucket out of sunlight, often under a wet rag. Keep them refrigerated until it’s time to cook.

The simplest way to cook crabs is to add them to a steamer pot with 2 inches of water. Some folks add beer and crab seasoning for flavor. Steaming brings the seasoning inside the shell. Turning bright red indicates that the crabs are ready and the meat is firm. Some crabbers prefer to clean them before cooking by removing the top shell and cleaning out the gills.

It’s traditional to cover a picnic table with newspaper for a crab feast, best complemented by Jersey corn. Crack into the cartilage and pull out the sweet meat that many consider the taste of summer.

“It’s one of the last family-oriented, outdoor things that parents can teach their kids to do and usually have pretty good success,” says Remaley.

Clamming in New Jersey

Clams offer an even simpler form of foraging (and no one has ever been bitten by one). Clammers generally target hard clams, known as Quahog, whose scientific name is Mercenaria, which means “money,” a reference to the colorful parts of the shells that Native Americans used as currency.

While local clams all look and taste similar, they are classified by size: littlenecks, topnecks and chowder clams, though you can’t target any particular size. Unlike crabs, clams tend to like more salinity and are found in higher concentrations closer to the ocean, rather than up into estuaries. Recreational clamming generally involves getting out into the water and sinking your feet into the kind of muddy bottom that clams like.

Clamming is more than just a summertime activity or a means of getting dinner. It’s a great way to get kids and non-outdoorsy adults to overcome their fears. Digging your feet into that unknown bottom is metaphorically out of our comfort zone and literally an immersion into nature.

Clams on table with corn and salt and pepper shakers

Fresh clams and Jersey corn scream summer. Photo: iStock/Alexandra Grablewski

Clamming can be done with a rake or a method known as treading. This is foraging at its most basic level: feeling for something hard among the soft bottom and pulling it from the muck. Clams are collected into baskets, usually, homemade contraptions traditionally floated by inner tubes. Today, they’re commonly made with pool noodles.

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Clams can be prepared a number of ways. If left in cold water, they will filter out sand themselves. From a cooler full of ice, littlenecks and topnecks can be shucked and eaten raw “on the half” or steamed. With chowders, you have the option to deep fry the bellies or shuck and bake. Linguini with freshly caught clams in the sauce is a New Jersey favorite.

Clams are also a vital part of our waterways, filter feeders that eat microorganisms that become harmful when they are plentiful in an ecosystem. ReClam the Bay, a Toms River-based nonprofit, has been working to fortify the clam population in the last two decades by purchasing a half million to a million juvenile clams and oysters each year, delivering them to a dozen protected nurseries in Barnegat Bay, and distributing them to reproduce.

“The fact is that it took 50–75 years to degrade the estuary. And it is going to take many more years to improve it,” explains founder Rick Bushnell. “It’ll never return to its original state, but we can stop the decline and even make some improvements.”

ReClam the Bay encourages recreational clamming that adheres to regulations from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Bureau of Marine Habitat and Shellfisheries. “We put them in so that others can enjoy taking them out,” says Bushnell. “The more people who enjoy our bay, the more who will care for it.”

Clams and crabs can be harvested with the same state shellfish license, which is $10 for residents, $2 for kids under 14, $20 for nonresidents, and free for seniors. New Jersey Fish & Wildlife has a series of maps on the DEP website that shows safe areas to harvest. Find a host of information here.

Best Locations in NJ for Crabbing and Clamming

    • Red Bank Marina, Red Bank
    • Benchmark Boat Rentals, Brick
    • Trixie’s Landing, Berkeley Township
    • Van’s Boat, Bait & Tackle, Barnegat Light
    • Bob’s Bay Marina, Barnegat
    • Cedar Cove Marina, Tuckerton
    • Ray Scott’s Dock, Margate
    • Ocean City Fishing Center, Ocean City
    • Bunker’s Marina, Wildwood
    • Dividing Creek Boat Rentals, Dividing Creek

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